The Understudy

by David W. Landrum


part 1

It all started when Adrienne Tsien told Selene Perez to remove the light in the back of the stage at City Theater.

“I checked the electric bill,” she said. “That light is costing us fifty dollars a quarter.”

“But it’s the stage light,” Selene protested.

“So what?”

“Well...” Selene hedged. “It’s traditional.”

A smile crept on to Adrienne’s lips. “Traditional? You mean you believe that old superstition?”

Selene blushed.

“I hope,” Adrienne said, looking around so the cast and crew would hear her, “we aren’t children who believe in ghosts. The light goes, and that’s the end of it.”

At lunch Sossity Chandler asked the other cast members what Adrienne meant about the light and ghosts.

“It’s an old theater superstition,” Kyle — one of the two male leads in the play Sossity had taken a role in — told her. “You leave a light burning backstage 24/7.”

“Why?”

“If you don’t, you’ll get a ghost!” He quavered his voice and raised his hands. Everyone laughed.

Sossity did not have a lot of time to think about what Kyle had said. She left rehearsal at six-thirty, grabbed a bite to eat at Panera, and went downtown to the Gilmore Room, where she had a gig.

She was scheduled from seven to nine and had an option for the late slot, eleven to one. She planned to play that one too, though her fingers would be raw at the end of the job. It was a good gig and paid well. She needed the money, which was also why she had taken an acting job at City Theater.

Sossity Chandler played regularly around town, but what she made doing bars, folk clubs, and coffee houses barely covered her living expenses. When she saw an audition ad for a “woman 20-30 who plays guitar,” she called. Before she booked the audition she asked what the job paid.

“The job pays $3,000. You say you’re a singer?”

“I play folk venues. I’m playing at the Gilmore the next couple of weekends.”

“Have you acted?”

“I acted in high school and college. In high school I had the female lead in Arsenic and Old Lace and in Our Town and in South Pacific. In college I was in Hamlet.”

Hamlet? Did you play Ophelia?”

“Gertrude.”

“Come by at one o’clock tomorrow.”

Sossity put down the phone. $3,000 sounded like all the money in the world to her. That night she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and recited all the lines she could remember from Hamlet. “How is it with thee?” she intoned, “that thou dost bend thine eye upon vacancy and with the incorporeal air do hold discourse?”

The next day she put on a black blouse and short black skirt, patterned hose and boots, threw on the leather coat, grabbed her guitar and trudged through the dirty slush of downtown to City Theater, only a few blocks from her apartment.

City Theater had been in continuous operation for eighty-five years. Sossity entered the red-plush lobby, empty and silent, pushed open a door to the main auditorium, and saw a group of people sitting in the front row of seats next to the old stage with its ornate moldings and intricate wrought iron borders. They waved her forward.

She met Adrienne, the director; Selene, the stage manager (the woman she had talked to on the phone); and Nanci, the costumer.

“The male lead in the play has a girlfriend who is a folk singer,” Adrienne explained. “That is the role you are auditioning for. It’s a substantial part, not the female lead, but definitely an important supporting part that requires considerable acting skill. You’ll also be singing and playing your guitar on stage a lot. Get up there and play us a song.”

Sossity almost asked what song, but Adrienne’s gaze suggested she was looking for signs of timidity. Sossity knew she could not be timid or reticent. She wanted the role. She needed the money. She unpacked her guitar and ascended the steps to the worn boards of the City stage.

Sossity did a gutsy, bluesy original. Adrienne, Selene, and Nancy applauded.

“I like the way you play,” Adrienne said. “Now let’s see you act.”

They gave her the script. She read some of her part. The three women listened. When she had finished, Adrienne settled back in the seat.

“You told Selene you were Gertrude in Hamlet. Do you remember any of the lines from that part?”

Sossity licked her lips, glad she had gone over them last night. “I remember a couple.”

“We only need one,” Adrienne put in.

Sossity recited, doing the shorter speech first:

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Adrienne pondered. “You sing very well,” she said, “and you seem to have quite a bit of acting skill. A little underdeveloped, but it’s definitely there. I don’t see any point in making you wait; you have the part, Ms. Chandler. Congratulations.”

Sossity left the theater with a script and music and a CD of the songs she would have to learn. Selene added her to the payroll. She would get three checks for one thousand dollars each in the next month, the first in two weeks. She fairly skipped home.

Saturday night she played at the Gilmore. The owner offered her two more performances and promised to recommend her to local club owners he knew. She spent Sunday with friends, called home, talked with her parents, finished a bottle of wine she and her boyfriend David had opened when he visited her last week, and went to bed at one o’clock in the morning., happily drunk, and ready to face life, which did not seem so bad after all.

* * *

The first thing they did was a read-through. Adrienne and Selene had different interpretations of the play and strong opinions on everything connected with it, from lighting to scenery to costume variations. Adrienne had cut two parts from the play that Selene thought essential to the story. They finished just past midnight.

Sossity stood up and stretched as the others filed out to get coffee. She yawned widely. When she opened her eyes, she saw a woman standing ten or so feet away from her, gazing at her with a bewildered look. The woman was tall and wore a white eyelet dress. She had long, chestnut-colored hair.

Sossity smiled at her. “Hi.”

After a second the woman seemed to snap out of a trance or reverie. “Hello,” she answered, as if she did not quite know what to say.

“I don’t think I’ve met you. Are you in the cast or crew?”

The woman sputtered a moment then said, “I’m here looking for someone.”

“Someone in the cast?”

“No.” She looked around nervously. “Just a friend I’m supposed to meet.”

“Maybe I can help you. I’m Sossity Chandler. I’m in the play. We did a read-through tonight. That’s why we’re here so late.”

“I see.” The woman took a step closer. “Was it a good read-through?”

“I think so. We’ve got the characters pretty well nailed down.”

“That’s important.”

“Do you act?”

The woman tried to smile but only managed a grimace. “I used to act a lot, yes. But that was a while back.”

“You are... who?” Sossity asked, putting out her hand.

The woman took a step back as if startled. But then she recovered. “I’m sorry.” This time she managed a genuine smile. “You probably think I’m a loony or something.” She took Sossity’s hand and shook it. The woman’s hand was cold and clammy. “I’m Elaine.”

“I’m happy to meet you, Elaine.”

“The pleasure is surely mine,” Elaine answered.

“Maybe I can help you find the person you’re looking for.”

“No, that’s all right. I think I know where he is. But thank you, Sossity.”

Sossity laughed. “You’re not going to ask me about my name?”

She looked puzzled. “Ask you what about it?”

“Ask me how I got it. Everyone seems to think it’s a really odd name and always asks me where it came from.”

“I heard it a lot when I was in England. I just got back from there. Your name is pretty common over there so I didn’t think anything of it.”

“I wish there were more people like you.”

Sossity heard a loud noise from the lobby. Someone must have dropped something, she thought as she looked that way. When she turned her eyes back to stage left, she saw no sign of the woman. It was as if she had disappeared.

* * *

Two days later everyone came in at 6 a.m. for a photo shoot. They put on costumes and make-up for the photographer, who would be there at seven. Sossity posed her photos and then went backstage to get a cup of coffee.

Turning a corner, she saw the woman she had spoken with — Elaine — sitting on the edge of the prop table. Sossity stopped. Horror gripped her. Elaine’s body was transparent. She could see through her: could see the board of the table and the brick wall and posters stuck to it. Not only that: her dress and hair were splattered with blood and her skin was a muddy green color. Her eyes blazed red. Sossity met her terrible red eyes.

Elaine disappeared.

Sossity stood there, so frightened she could not move. It had to have been a hallucination, she thought. Maybe she had gotten up too early, the flash from the camera had affected her eyes, and she needed coffee.

Selene walked by. “Sossity, are you all right?”

She decided not to tell Selene she was seeing things.

“I’m okay. I just need coffee.”

“Adrienne has some Starbucks in her office.” She went her way.

Sossity walked into Adrienne’s office. A cardboard coffee traveler box and a stack of cups sat on the edge of her desk. Kyle and an actress named Linda were there. Adrienne sat behind her cluttered desk.

Sossity joined the group, thankfully sipping a cup of strong coffee, concluding she was working too much and vowing to get more sleep. The four of them talked about the weather and how the show was shaping up when Sossity’s eyes fixed on a photograph hanging on the wall opposite Adrienne, who noticed her attention.

“What are you looking at, Sossity?”

She pointed, at first unable to speak. Then she asked, “Who is that?”

Adrienne glanced, slightly amused by Sossity’s unexplained bewilderment. “That’s Elaine Boswell.”

Adrienne’s office was lined with pictures of actors and actresses who had played roles at City Theater. She noticed one of Gillian Anderson. She also noticed a silver plaque beneath the picture of Elaine Boswell that gave her name and said IN MEMORIAM and then the dates of her birth and death, 1890-1921.

“She only lived to be thirty,” Linda observed.

“It’s a sad story,” Adrienne said. “I read about it when I went through the archives here. Elaine Boswell was a budding actress just on the verge of making it big. She started here, then began to act in other venues. She had successful plays in Chicago, then in New York and Toronto. She played a show in London. She had just got back from England and was scheduled to play the lead in the opening performance of a drama by Susan Glaspell. And...”

She paused. Everyone waited for her to go on. Adrienne smiled. “And,” she continued, “tragedy. Three days before the gala, her boyfriend murdered her. They closed the theater for a month. The whole city mourned because she was the sweetheart of the town and everyone thought she might have gone on to be America’s top actress. And from the reviews I’ve read of her performances — I did a little research on this because I was interested in it — she might well have become just that. But...” She let her voice trail off.

“What happened to the boyfriend?” Kyle asked.

“He got the electric chair,” Adrienne answered.

Sossity felt faint. She took a sip of coffee.

“Right after that, people swore they saw her ghost haunting the backstage. Supposedly she was a ghastly apparition with red eyes, green skin, bruises on her neck and bloody hands. So many people saw her they thought about getting the place exorcised. But then the ghost disappeared. Things got back to normal.”

Sossity still felt as if she might pass out. Adrienne gazed at her inquisitively.

“Sossity, you look like you know this woman.”

She almost said she had seen someone in the theater who looked like her but remembered Kyle’s joke about ghosts.

“No,” she said, trying not to stammer. “She just reminds me of someone I knew. Looks like an old college roommate.” Then she added, “That’s some story. Sad.”

“It is,” Adrienne agreed. “Real drama.”

That night, Sossity went to the public library and got on the Internet. She found the story of Elaine Boswell along with photographs of her with former President Theodore Roosevelt after a production of King Lear in New York City; she played Cordelia. There were also pictures of Paul C. Stevenson, her boyfriend, a handsome young man who did not look like a murderer.

The site displayed several photographs of them together and then, toward the end of the page, a picture of Stevenson being strapped into the electric chair. The last page in the website displayed a full-length photo of Elaine, graceful, beautiful, smiling, outside on a summer day, a parasol in one hand, wearing the long white eyelet dress she had been wearing both times Sossity saw her at City Theater.

And there was no doubt in her mind it was she. The image she saw on the Internet clearly matched the face she had seen on stage. The woman said her name, Elaine. She had shaken hands with a ghost.

Sossity sat in a daze, staring at the old photographs, until a librarian whispered that her allotted time was up and she would have to relinquish her Internet station. She left the library, stepping out in the brutal cold of a February night.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by David W. Landrum

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